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TV Reviews : ‘Voice of the Planet’: a Provocative Dialogue

Earth to man: “Please do something.”

Man: “What?”

“Wake up!” the planet yells, and plaintively adds: “You are the shepherds.”

It’s not surprising that Earth in this case is a woman--at least its voice is female. What is unusual is that Nature, quiet all these centuries but now desperate to communicate, has chosen to take the form of a computer hacker--temperamental, witty, perverse, mysterious.

The hacker leaves intriguing messages for a Caltech author-ecologist named William Planter (William Shatner) and lures him on a journey to a Buddhist monastery in Nepal at the foot of Mt. Everest. There he discovers a monk’s dusty computer and is catapulted through time and space by the hacker’s disembodied voice (Faye Dunaway), a living, feeling, fickle spirit whose name is Gaia, the mother goddess of the Earth.

Thus unfolds the epic, $3.5-million, five-part, 10-hour miniseries “Voice of the Planet,” premiering tonight at 5:05 p.m. with a repeat broadcast at 9:05 p.m. on cable’s TBS. Subsequent two-hour installments with reprises continue nightly through Friday.

The series was written, directed and produced by 39-year-old Santa Monica author, filmmaker and former Dartmouth professor Michael Tobias (and based on his book of the same title). It won’t grab the public’s pulse like PBS’ “Civil War,” but as an advocacy nature drama, “Voice of the Planet” expands the miniseries genre.

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A picture of heaven and hell on Earth emerges as the program’s 10 hours move from bubbling primeval estuaries to “life’s first intimacies"--of clay crystals and cellular life in warm mud pools--to toxic pollution, wars and our near-extinction as a race.

Tobias, shooting with crews on five continents, completed the production long before the Persian Gulf War began, but there’s footage of the gassed Kurds, and the war’s devastation intensifies the film’s environmental urgency.

Gaia (like Mark Twain in his book “The Mysterious Stranger”) thinks man makes an awful fuss about plagues and things. The more corpses, the more bacteria for the begonias, she believes.

But Gaia’s Earth is evolving, not indifferent. The traveler’s eyes begin to see what becomes a love story between the author-ecologist and Gaia, between Nature and mankind.

“Voice of the Planet” may seem like a jumbo collection of nature specials, enhanced by this quaint computer screen and sexy dialogue between Shatner and the unseen Dunaway (an alluring super-female counterpoint to Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey”). But what distinguishes this journey from the flock of other global-sensitive docudramas is its language, its cinema-verite style, its fanciful premise and its strong opinions--some daring, such as the foolhardiness of space programs. NASA won’t love this program.

The Dunaway/Shatner conceit is quite a hat trick. The fairy-tale form turns a highbrow excursion, complete with lines from Percey Shelley and other poets, into a haunting commentary on homo sapiens on the brink and “fostering their own annihilation.”

The program deals with sex, fire, water, agriculture, overpopulation, extinction, stars and evolution. Crucially, the experience is visual, not talky (240 locations are seen in the film).

Thursday’s program is haunted by the unthinkable, “the war that will last a few minutes,” followed by the specter of a nuclear winter and “ultraviolet light that will scorch the Earth.”

But it is Friday’s fade-out that unfurls the production’s most controversial point in a section called “Starstruck.” Here Gaia ridicules space travel and our preparation of space labs. She brands the idea of the propagation of life in outer space as a waste of resources.

“A test-tube environment cannot support humanity,” Gaia tells the aptly named Planter. “Earth is your true biological connection. Don’t lose it.”


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